Suki Says: Part 1 –
Balanchine Hands

In the first installment of our series of excerpts from faculty member Suki Schorer’s book, Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique, we’re highlighting a section that tackles one of the smallest parts of the body, yet one that plays an essential part in Mr. Balanchine’s aesthetic and training: the hands. Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion around Balanchine’s specific approach to how to place the fingers, as well as a fair share of misinterpretations of his preferred placement. Read on for Suki’s clear explanation of “Balanchine hands” and how they are properly practiced.

Suki Says - Balanchine Hands

It was at the barre that [Balanchine] taught the basic hand position he wanted to see, and he made sure we memorized it. I am not referring to his hand position as basic without good reason. He refined the presentation of the hand, and he wanted us to think of it as basic in the same way that his precise fifth position is basic for the feet. He paid attention not only to the hand as a whole, but also to its parts, the back of the hand, and the palm of the hand, the thumb and fingers individually.

Suki Schorer teaching ballet class

Balanchine admired Spanish dancing for the eloquence of the dancers’ hands, and he wanted our hands to be articulate and expressive, too. Some teachers say the four fingers separated are not very pretty, so they put the fingers together, and they say the thumb is ugly, so let’s hide it by putting it down and close to the palm and then turn the wrist so the palm faces down. Perhaps aware of this practice, Mr. B used to say,

“Hands should not become a handicap! We have them, so we should use them, and they should help us. If dancers hide what they have, what do you see? Not much! God gave us four fingers and a thumb, and I want to see them all.”

Like every other part of the dancer’s body, the hands could be beautiful to Mr. B. One of the most distinctive formal elements of Balanchine’s rethinking of the hand is the thumb. Often treated almost as an embarrassment and buried somehow, it was for Mr. B the counterpart to the other four fingers. He wanted the thumb to come out from the palm in the first joint, then curve in toward the tip of the middle finger in its second joint. Held this way, the thumb was visible most of the time.

All of the fingers are rounded and curved. It is the differing amount of bend in each finger, as well as the slight spaces between, that separate them. The middle finger is curved in the most, the little finger is straightest and is held out most. The ring finger is slightly less curved than the middle finger. The index finger, which Mr. B liked to call the “pointer” finger, will tend to separate without specific attention; Mr. B wanted it to curve in slightly, but less than the middle and ring fingers. Seen from the side, the little finger is out the most, then the index finger, then the ring finger; the middle finger is curved in the most.

Balanchine wanted his dancers’ hands to look round and soft but not to be soft. The inside (the palm) and the back are held curved, rather than being held stiffly flat or being allowed to hang relaxed and straight. They are held by muscles that maintain the shape he wanted. The soft, relaxed hand hangs lifeless from the wrist, almost certainly with a drooping elbow. Mr. Balanchine called this look “dead chicken wing.” His carefully shaped hand with its balanced inner and outer curves and separated fingers can be viewed as a flower, with its petals opening and looking up to the sun, with energy, trying to reach that sun. The droopy hand is the wilted flower ready for the compost heap.

advanced men - back attitude center
These students have energy in their hands just as they have in the rest of their bodies.

In the early 1960s, Balanchine was so concerned about our hands that, at the barre, he suggested that we each hold a rubber ball that was a little smaller than a tennis ball but larger than a Ping-Pong ball. A ball of this size fit comfortably in the palm, enabling the inner surface of the palm to gently mold itself to surround the ball in the center of the palm, forming a shallow “pocket” for the ball. The thumb wrapped the top of the ball; the index and middle fingers closed around the center of the ball; and the little finger was held out. The ring finger might be on the ball or could be held rounded, but just off the ball.

Balanchine hand training using a rubber ball

This teaching device helped us with our hands in two key ways. First, it made us aware that we had a hand to which we had to give life and energy. If a dancer working at the barre forgot she had a hand and relaxed it, the ball would drop. At first, to be sure, there were balls bouncing everywhere. But after about three weeks of holding the balls, we could remember that we had hands and that we needed to hold them and to keep them alive. The balls stopped dropping. Second, it gave us a reliable, consistent, round shape for the muscles of our hands to memorize while we learned to make and maintain a gentle curve in the palm, back of the hand, thumb, and middle finger. We did not have to guess about what was right.

Using a ball to keep the hand alive while doing barre exercises also helps to make the dancer aware of holding the arm from the back and maintaining support for the elbows. When Mr. B observed that we were beginning to have the look he wanted in our hands, he would tell us to practice during otherwise lost time. For example, while waiting for the bus, waiting for the water to boil, or during the TV commercials, a dancer could say to herself “Hands!” and look to see if hers instantly assumed the correct shape without the ball. If not, she needed more practice.

A young SAB student practices shaping her fingers by placing her thumb on her finger.

Sometimes I see a student with a limp hand and hanging fingers, or a hand that looks stiff and flat. I start by suggesting that she hold her thumb gently on the top side of the last joint of her index finger with the little finger held out, which is the way Mr. B wanted the children to start learning the correct hand shape. If this does not seem to help her to form the required roundness, I suggest that she get a ball to hold at the barre, and after a while, her hands look better… Dancers should practice without and, if necessary, with the ball until the correct shape is automatic and immediate.

(Schorer, 1999, p.55-57)

Advanced SAB students showing all 10 fingers while they dance.

Essential Details to Balanchine Hands

The hands should have life and energy, no relaxed, drooping wrists and fingers
The thumb should be visible, coming out from the palm in the first joint, then curving in towards the tip of the middle finger in its second joint

All of the fingers are rounded and curved, with a differing amount of bend and slight spaces between that separate them

Students can practice the correct positioning of the hands by wrapping their fingers around the right-sized ball during barre, or by holding the thumb gently on the top side of the last joint of the index finger, with the little finger held out.  

Read More about our series, Suki Says and stay tuned for the next excerpt.

Schorer, S., Lee, C. R., & Rosegg, C. (1999). Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. A.A. Knopf.